Patten admits his power is waning

Hong Kong turns its back on Britain
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The Independent Online
Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, has admitted that China already has greater influence over the colony than Britain, more than two years before it formally assumes control. "Each day as 1997 comes closer," Mr Patten said yesterday, "individuals and businesses quite naturally are not looking primarily to Britain, not to the Governor of Hong Kong but to China as the future sovereign, to provide reassurances."

In comments which are likely to be seen as a watershed, marking the demise of British influence, Mr Patten went on: "There comes a point, and I suspect it's come, when my reassurances about the business atmosphere or related matters after 1997 are ratherless important to investors and businessmen than what Chinese officials say."

In Hong Kong, where money-making dominates most other concerns, the impact of the Governor's statement was overshadowed by an unconnected heavy fall in share prices.

Previously, Mr Patten, and his predecessor, Lord Wilson, were very sensitive to suggestions that they were running a lame- duck administration. The official line was that the Hong Kong government remained fully in charge, but Mr Patten has now broken thetaboo of refusing to admit that the incoming sovereign power is more influential than Britain. He has done so two days before visiting London for discussions about ceremonies to mark the handover of power on 30 June 1997.

Mr Patten said he hoped China's decision-making process on Hong Kong would not be affected by the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's paramount leader. The Governor provided a list of pending issues which required China's urgent endorsement before progress could be made. Among them, he highlighted the position of civil servants. Recent statements by Chinese officials have fuelled an atmosphere of unease, subtle jockeying for position and talk about resignation and emigration.

In theory the colony's 185,000 civil servants have nothing to worry about. Both the outgoing British administration and the incoming Chinese administration have assured them their jobs are secure and they will not be affected by the transfer of power. "Iwant to tell them that they may stay with their hearts at ease," said Lu Ping, China's most senior official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, during his official visit to the colony in 1991.

Recently Mr Lu's tone has been less conciliatory. He has demanded that the Hong Kong government hand Peking information about civil servants. Taking little trouble to conceal his irritation with the government, he warned that China "will not be polite" in retaliating if this is not done.

One piece of information China is anxious to possess is a list of people who have secured the right to obtain British nationality, even though they need not exercise that right under the special emigration plan designed for Hong Kong. After China resumessovereignty over the territory in 1997, foreign nationals will not be eligible to occupy the top jobs in the civil service.

"I don't know any of my colleagues who trust the Communists," said one senior civil servant determined to retire before 1997. "Most of them say nothing in public - they fear that what they say will somehow get back to the Chinese'.

No one knows how many, if indeed there are any Chinese moles working in the civil service, but the suspicion lingers that a number of officials are establishing their own private lines of communication with Chinese counterparts. More commonly members of the service are increasingly keeping their heads down, refusing to take any initiative and generally resisting reform moves which may be seen as unwelcome by the Chinese government. Most are cautiously waiting on the sidelines.

The waiting may come to an abrupt halt if reports are confirmed which suggest that China will introduce the equivalent of a political commissariat system, with mainland Chinese deputed to shadow the heads of government departments. Senior cadres are saidto be in training, taking classes in Cantonese and English as part of their preparation. Now Mr Patten has said openly what has been obvious to most people in Hong Kong, the men and women who run his administration may feel even less inclined to be seen as loyal servants to a regime in its twilight days.